Published: Tuesday July 9, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday July 9, 2013 MYT 9:38:21 AM

Ambon, a pretty sweet deal

Serene: A scenic view high above the historic city of Ambon Manise.

Serene: A scenic view high above the historic city of Ambon Manise.

For Malaysians in search of something adventurous and yet vaguely familiar, Ambon is a unique and fascinating destination.

FOR Malaysians who are bored of Bandung, Bali and Jogjakarta, the tukang cerita has a new destination – somewhere unexpected, a little raw and full of surprises: Ambon Manise (or Ambon The Sweet), the eastern Indonesian city deep in the heart of the Banda Sea and a gateway to a host of other islands: Kei, Tanimbar, Halmahera and Seram, to name a few.

For much of the past 16 or so years since Suharto’s fall in 1998, Ambon has been wracked by inter-religious violence and strife.

For this historic, and at times raucous, city of well over 300,000 (with a 60:40 Christian/Muslim demographic balance), the path to democracy and stability has been fraught and bloody but the city has now achieved a measure of peace.

Now it’s being shaken up by a wave of investment as shopping malls, hotels and housing developments sweep through its narrow and crowded streets.

I was in Ambon last week, conducting interviews and getting a sense of the place and its recent history.

While not a tourist, I spent quite a lot of time seeing the sights in between listening to the stories from both sides of the religious divide – a chasm so deep and bitter in the 1999-2002 period that much of the city was actually physically separated with duplicate set of facilities – both governmental and private sector: one serving the Christians and another the Muslims.

But Ambon, with a history stretching back well over five hundred years – with the first European incursions dating to the early 1500’s – has always been a heavily-contested part of the world.

It was a hub back then, with the clove-producing sultanates of Ternate and Tidore to the north and the nutmeg and mace-rich Banda’s to the south. Ambon was a crucial, globally-important commercial centre, all the more so when the Dutch supplanted the Portuguese in the early 1600’s.

Control over the precious spice trade led to many incidences of horrific brutality and viciousness as the Europeans (by this stage the English were also key players) jostled for supremacy along with local elites.

Amongst the most notorious was the Amboyna Massacre of 1623 when Dutch authorities seized their English competitors, accused them of treason and executed them, setting in place a series of events that was to lead to the transfer of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York) to the English in 1667.

The Ambon of 2013 reflects these events, as well as the more recent communal strife which has happily been overcome through a process of ground-up democracy and social activism as well as heavy policing.

While some Western embassies warn against visiting the city, any sensible and sensitive traveller should find it an easy enough destination to manage.

The Penang-based hotelier, Rebecca Wilkinson, who runs a full-service, luxury yacht in Indonesia called Tiger Blue uses Ambon as a staging point for the boat’s 22-hour journey to the historic Banda Islands.

As she says: “Ambon’s location is reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro or Sydney. It’s quite magnificent, especially at night with all the lights twinkling in the hills above the city.”

For my part, I spent a couple of hours walking through the town’s markets. While I couldn’t bring myself to eat sago as a savoury dish at lunch, I was very intrigued by the mounds of creamy-white, tennis-ball shaped, uncooked sago waiting to be bought and prepared.

There was also an abundance of papaya flowers and unusual-looking, snout-faced fish.

Ambon’s market-goers are themselves a source of fascination, reminding me of the Republic’s vast geographical scale and demographic diversity.

This city is not Bukittinggi or even Semarang. Instead, Ambon is redolent of Polynesia: faces are darker, features are more pronounced and the hair is curlier.

Indeed, standing by the waterfront, you can watch as travellers arrive from towns such as Sorong and Manokwari on the westernmost, bird’s head-shaped end of Papua to Suharto’s prison-island of Buru (where the writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, served out his exile) and elsewhere.

There’s a lively coffee-shop culture with cafes like Sibu-Sibu and Joas along Jalan Said Perintah in the centre of town. Amboinese, I’m happy to say, enjoy sitting and watching the world pass by, while sipping kopi rarobang made with ginger, nutmeg and other spices and munching on their own crunchier version of pisang goreng.

I should add that there’s a quaint museum, with two enormous whale skeletons and a beautiful, extraordinarily tranquil and moving WW2-era cemetery overlooking the harbour, anchored by two gigantic, epiphyte-covered rain trees.

So for Malaysians who are in search of something adventurous and yet vaguely familiar, Ambon (along with its melange of Portuguese and Dutch colonial history and cultural influences) presents a unique and yet fascinating destination.

It’s somewhere that’s particularly resonant for us, from the far western end of the archipelago.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion

More Articles

Filter by

We can still learn from history

5 August 2014

Great books remind us that our lives and collective history is more meaningful than the petty ambitions and bickering of leaders.

M'sia can learn from Indonesian polls

26 July 2014

What’s striking is how much more advanced the republic’s elections have become, with the General Elections Commission uploading a photograph of each of the result forms from all 479,000 voting stations.

Sad reminder: Flowers and soft toys placed on the ground at the main crash site of Flight MH17 near Grabovo in eastern Ukraine. - EPA

Families of MH17 victims deserve justice

22 July 2014

Our Government must show the world that Malaysia will not take a backseat.

What next for Indonesia?

15 July 2014

It remains to be seen whether the judiciary, civil service and military will uphold the will of the people rather than political expediency.

May the best man win: Jokowi (left) and Prabowo will be going head to head in Indonesia's presidential elections tomorrow. - EPA

Indonesia's existential contest

8 July 2014

Both presidential candidates have similar platforms but diametrically opposed styles of leadership and visions for the future.

What’s in a word?

1 July 2014

The Government’s refusal to allow Christians to use the word ‘Allah’ presents a number of challenges.

The Constitution must be supreme

24 June 2014

With faith-related issues, our elected officials should lead the way and draw on the collective wisdom of our nation to find the path forward.

Lessons from Indonesia’s debates

17 June 2014

It’s time for Malaysian politicians to square off in the debating arena and let the people decide.

Presidential crossroads

10 June 2014

Jokowi and Prabowo appear to be evenly matched in what is considered the most important presidential election in Indonesia’s history.

Lessons from India

3 June 2014

How Narendra Modi was able to clear the hurdle of suspicions over his role in Gujarat’s anti-Muslim riots is a fascinating case study.


Recent Posts

More Columnists